Checker Hughes and the Birth of the Demons

May 15, 2020 by
Filed under: NSW Demons 

Checker Hughes – “start playing like demons!”

Nigel Dawe

It’s not an exaggeration to say, that Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes’ now infamous rant at his players (in which he implored them – to put it nicely – “to start playing like demons!”) during a match in his first year at the club in 1933, has always fascinated me.

Both in terms of how it was actually delivered, to whom and exactly when it occurred. Was it a pre-planned missive by the master coach or are we talking one of the great off-the-cuff moments in the history of the club?

One thing I’ve never been able to find out, was in which game it actually took place, and also there are a few different versions as to what transpired. Though I think this facet of the tale has much to do with there being a more mild-friendly, or shall we say a contemporary version of events, as opposed to an ‘actual version’ of how it all unfolded.

For a start, it’s hard to imagine our team known by any other moniker now, than ‘the Demons’, doubly so, seeing this tag has accompanied 10 of the club’s overall 12 premiership successes since the triple treat seasons of ‘39-40-41 (and excepting the massive disruption caused by WWII, many an old-timer has suggested that this golden sequence could well have stretched on for at least two to three seasons more, given the dominance and depth of talent at the club).

I personally think Checker’s demonic ‘christening’ of our team was an iron-willed masterstroke, not to mention a firmly set stamp of authority on a club he’d just taken the reins of; it was his Cortés moment (Cortés being the Spaniard who led an expedition to South America once, and famously announced when they all got there: “Burn the ships, we’re marching to Mexico City!”)

Keep in mind, Checker also famously sent 13 players packing and wore his old Richmond guernsey to his first training session at Melbourne (a psychological card-trick Barassi himself would play when he took over the Kangaroos decades later, by wearing his very own fire-forged red and blue #31, just to subtly announce: “What I’m asking you to do boys, I’ve already done!”).

On the topic of guernseys, Checker was also instrumental in altering Melbourne’s strip, getting rid of a thin red horizontal line at the base and making the upper red section more stark and pronounced (like the new coach himself, who apparently spoke commandingly out of the side of his mouth as would a mob boss or a gangster). It could even be argued that no figure has introduced more wholesale change, in terms of both the look and feel of a club in the entire history of the game.

The key to how the one-time Fuchsias became the modern-day Demons though (which wasn’t unusual for teams to have floral emblems of this kind – think of the Waratahs in Rugby even to this day – remembering our guernsey once had a red vertical stripe right down the middle of it, thus conjuring the spectre of this particular type of flower) resides very much with the late Checker Hughes, who passed away in 1978.

But the other smoking gun (aside from Captain Blood Dyer’s account of what ‘took place’, which I’ll return to soon) is the future celebrated newspaper scribe and best on ground in each of the three premiership wins – Percy Beames; out of all the celebrated stars of the Melbourne team at that time, like Jack Mueller, Norm Smith and Allan La Fontaine (who each commenced their careers in 1934) Beames was the only one on-deck at the club from 1931.

So conceivably, he was very much privy to and knew the story behind the original rant that resulted in the team becoming known as the Demons, doubly so, that he had the classic journo’s bent – of a refined eye and a great ear for the easily missed.

Unfortunately Percy Beames is no longer with us, having passed away in 2004. Which leaves the tale as told by Richmond’s Captain Blood, who revered and knew better than anyone, his first coach at League level – Checker Hughes. And so, according to Dyer, his wily old mentor let loose on his inherited batch of boys in ‘33, with perhaps the most red-hot roast of all-time: “You take pride in being called the Fuchsias – that’s the nearest thing I’ve heard to a pansy. You’re a laughing stock, now lift your heads and start playing like Demons!”

With that said, and this being the spot where the tale typically ends, I returned one last time to an array of record books and trawled through each game Melbourne played in season 1933, for the final ‘missing’ piece of the jigsaw; and Round 11 at the MCG v Hawthorn (July 8th) emerges as the most likely moment in time for Checker’s demonic spray.

Whereby, it’s no wonder the inferno-tinged nickname stuck, as there was a 50 point turnaround to proceedings post three-quarter time! This being the only game Melbourne trailed at three-quarter time that whole season to then reverse the deficit for a win – as every account of the story testifies. So, from being 12 points down at the last break, by the final siren, less than half an hour later ‘the Demons’ were thus surely born, not to mention winners to the tune of 38 points.

What’s more, something that afternoon clearly sent our boys absolutely berserk – Big Bob Johnson Sr in his last season (the oldest man on the ground) ended the day with a career best 12 goals, and a then 22 year-old Percy Beames hit the score sheet with four majors of his own; both players doing their bit to baptise and embolden our pitchfork-brandishing name, that will surely remain in the annals of Australian sport forever.


Comments are closed.

Click here join NSW Demons now.

follow us on twitter Follow us on twitter

join our facebook group Join our facebook group

Sign up to our newsletter: